Monthly Archives: September 2015

Various thoughts on where I’m at after Drawn Dead at EFF

This is going to go a little more free form than usual.

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Spending an evening managing the studios at Pendulum Space, because perk number umpteen of getting your free time back is getting the chance to help out colleagues, and partially wishing I had bit the bullet on getting that 6pm cup of coffee, while being glad that sleep will come somewhat easier once I get home around 11.

Some people come out of doing a major show with a depressive hangover and a sense of loss. I don’t really feel *that*. I do feel a bit worn out, and yet a what’s-next sense, of my energy lacking focus of a big project.

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During the Elgin Fringe Festival weekend I wrote out some ideas I had been tossing around, and found that I have solid ideas for at least three other full length solo shows… a trilogy in fact. All three are sports ideas built around multiple characters and a somewhat ridiculous but intriguing central storyline. One is pro wrestling, one is about pro football and one is (of course) about baseball.

The challenge with these show ideas is, while I have a ton of character and plot ideas, I don’t have the benefit of reality or building a show around myself. Drawn Dead was in large part based on a true story, and the show is built around actual events in my life. It was still hard to write the show, but I always had the plot backdrop of the actual things that happened in my life during the time described. I always knew how the story went for the most part, and I totally understood the main character because he was me.

I would not have that benefit in these shows. I’m crafting character motivations out of thin air, plus while to some extent I’d model off of real life archetypes, I have to worry about plausibility and creating an intriguing, sustainable storyline that doesn’t yet exist. I suppose as an improviser that’s ultimately small potatoes, but rarely does an experienced player improvise with plot in mind.

I also currently don’t have a timeline, and give the difficulties in 2013 I’m not sure I want to force one on any of these shows just yet. At the very least, I want to build out and run some of these characters and scene ideas, and can find several opportunities to do so even this fall. But I also recognize the value of a deadline, and know that when you don’t have one you can tend to let an idea stagnate.

It looks like finding the balance between those concerns is the next step.

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Also, I finally stepped on a scale a few weeks ago for the first time in a while, and found I had dropped about 20 pounds since leaving Seattle. I don’t have a major weight problem, but I do carry some weight I don’t need, and was pretty happy to find I had shed some of it over the months. I had been exercising a lot in those months, doing some running, some weight lifting, as well as working on Drawn Dead, and it clearly had some effect.

I was a bit dismayed to find a scale a few days ago and discover I had gained a few of them back. I had let the exercise go as I ramped up to the festival. So I feel like I should find the time to get it back while the weather allows it. And probably clean up my diet a bit. Or simplify it. Or whatever will help get me in better shape.

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I just scheduled my annual Christmas trip to visit family in Las Vegas, and am glad I was finally able to pull off booking it. First off, while I’m not starving or behind on bills, money’s been a bit tight, and I wasn’t entirely sure I could find the funding to book the flight. But I found it and it happened.

I also realize, as my comedy and theatre work in Chicago starts to take off, the point may come where one year I may need to stay in town for work and won’t be able to make the trip. I appreciate every chance I do get to spend the holiday season with family and don’t take it for granted. I realize that should the above scenario ever occur I could probably just visit on Thanksgiving or make midyear trips to the scorching desert during the year or something, but still.

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Much like how 2015 was the great gateway to a Chicago life, 2016 feels like a pivotal year that could go a myriad of ways. My year+ of current Chicago improv training programs will end early next year. I don’t know which way my job situation will go: I’ll be eligible to transfer within my workplace in early January, and admittedly my current job is less than ideal so I’m looking for something else.

I could continue training in comedy (Second City Conservatory?). I could pursue performing several fringe festivals (so many within 5-6 hours of Chicago). I could get another job, or find a workable freelance situation that would open up time for more traveling and projects.

I also have a car whose lease is up in May. I could finance a purchase of that car. I could save up money to spruce it up so I can give it back to the dealer, saving the cost of car payments, insurance, gas, parking, etc. But I’d also lose having a car, which would impact travel, work commuting, etc. At the same time, outside of incidental road trips and work commutes I don’t really use it, and it costs money to have it. But not having it would severely limit my ability to do fringe festivals, take trips, perform certain jobs, etc etc etc. Lots to consider before I have to make the decision.

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Lots to consider, in general.

Poker, Fringe Festivals and Life

One of the themes in Drawn Dead was my confronting the reality that poker is not nearly as fun or do-able when you do it for a living and/or any substantial portion of your livelihood is on the line when you play.

I have had a lot of fun at the Elgin Fringe Festival, not just participating and performing Drawn Dead for great audiences, but also meeting other great artists and learning through many of them even more about performing on the road. Several of the artists have performed their shows at several festivals, and are heading to several more afterward.

The possibility of touring as a practice was on my table in late 2013, after Drawn Dead debuted at Seattle Fringe. But, never minding the “needs improvement” status of my show, I balked mostly for the same reasons I balked at seriously playing poker.

As an occasional endeavor, these festivals are fun. I might make money doing it, I might not, and that doesn’t matter to me nearly as much as enjoying the experience, producing a show others enjoy, and meeting great artists and other people.

But when it becomes a source of your livelihood, suddenly making money becomes paramount. Finishing a festival at a net loss is little more than a bummer as long as it’s not your primary income. Once it is a primary source, a net loss becomes an anxiety-inducing disaster. I didn’t worry or care at all about making money at Elgin Fringe, and that made it so much easier to enjoy it.

I’m not saying full-time festival performers don’t enjoy meeting people, entertaining audiences and performing… but it becomes much more challenging to enjoy the experience when a) the number of people paying matters a lot and b) you do it frequently, which removes the novelty and freshness of the experience.

I have great respect for those who do fringe festivals as part of their living touring their shows, especially when despite it all they hold onto a positive attitude and curiosity for new experiences, for new people, for art and everything else.

I won’t go as far as to slam the door with, “Well, it’s just not for me.” Down the road, it could be something I want to do and get to do. And maybe I don’t do it again. And most likely something in-between. Maybe I just do the festivals around my region. Maybe I go on a tour. Etc etc.

But the threshold at which I’d consider fringe-performing for a living is fairly high. My shows would have to sell very well wherever I go. I’d pretty much have to become the dreaded “brand”. I’d have to add up the projected numbers and expect a surplus suitably high to make a living from. That’s a high threshold, and I’m fine with setting such a high threshold to do it, as well as with the reality that I may not reach that point.

After all, I do it because I enjoy it. And if I won’t enjoy it, then why do it?

Drawn Dead is here

This week is both a celebration and a relief. After much work and stress, Drawn Dead is complete and live at the 2015 Elgin Fringe Festival through this Sunday. I have three more shows over the next three days, and then this experience will be over.

Work on my show ramped up as the final month approached, because as George Lewis says, there’s nothing like a deadline.

After much experimentation and rewriting, I decided to pretty much keep the original first half as is, with minor revisions, while rewriting and rerecording the bulk of the second half, including a brand new ending. The original ending was a hastily assembled solution to get the show up. This time around I had much more time to figure out and craft a more fitting ending. I also carefully went through and edited plus cleaned up bits and pieces of the old recorded audio.

Compared to 2013, where I finished the show for Seattle Fringe thinking, “Well, if I do the show again I can rework it then,” … I now have a finished product I feel confident taking to other festivals as-is, or anywhere. Enough friends in Chicago who couldn’t make it out to Elgin expressed an interest that I could do the show in Chicago at some point down the line, and now that could probably happen with as little as finding some space and someone to stage manage and handle front of house.

But after the last couple months, I’m looking forward to the break… even if by “break” I mean “still practicing improv and some sketch during the week”.

Improv doesn’t require as much outside work in comparison. You show up and play, whether you’re in a class, a rehearsal or a show. Workshops obviously require more work, and I still want to offer my Improv Diamond workshop in Chicago once this is done.

During the past month I also wrote my first sketches with Elliot Northlake as our sketch duo Sam and Elden for our four week run at the Annoyance Chuckle F*ckers series. The run went very well, we’ve got another show coming up, and are looking into subsequent gigs. We demonstrated an ability to quickly assemble and prepare sketches in a single rehearsal, and finished the run with about 30 minutes in raw material plus several ideas for other sketches.

So, I won’t be in a hurry to book anything else, but I’ve got a lot going on that I’m looking forward to.

Five years of improv (… well, sort of)

So, five years ago on this day, I took my first improv class at Unexpected Productions in Seattle. It would be a slow climb to where I am today as an improviser, in part because I was also training in other disciplines (Clown, Stage Combat, auditioning for and performing in theatre projects), but in part because I practiced at a much smaller volume than I do today. I went to the one class on Tuesday and that was it. Occasionally I’d go to a jam, or occasionally I’d do a workshop.

It wasn’t until I concurrently took a class at Jet City Improv and met the guys with which I’d form the group Wonderland that I’d practice on a more regular basis. And even then that was no more than two 3-hour sessions of practice a week. But it was regular practice, even when I wasn’t in class, and it also afforded me the chance to occasionally lead an exercise or coach scenes.

Having to stay ahead of the curve with my group pushed me to study up on improv, read books about it, watch a lot of it. Seattle is largely a short form and themed long form play town. They don’t do the montages and Harolds that are done elsewhere (though U.P. has recently introduced a Harold-themed 8pm show, and Randy Dixon’s Harold is typically more free form than the typical opening-scenes-game-scenes structure).

Over time, a) I learned a lot about improv and b) I gradually became bored with seeing the same shit and the same people doing it over and over. Plus, I was getting a chance to do clown pieces, do more experimental work, and most of all I got cast in Jenna Bean Veatch’s Sideshow, which introduced me to the dance community and sent me spiraling into quite the coming of age as a theatre performer… one that led me to gradually fade improv and leave it behind during 2012.

The timing of that exit is a bit weird and unfortunate because it was at the 2012 Seattle Festival of Improv Theater that I met Joe Bill, Asaf Ronen, Marz Timms and others who more than any of us realized did a LOT to shape the improviser I’ve eventually become today. Joe Bill introduced me to the Invocation, which when done with commitment is one of the great Harold openings. Asaf Ronen showed me that directing improvisers is not so much about knowing the answers as it is being just as observational and adaptive as a player on stage. Marz Timms showed me how to break the 4th wall in improv and not only keep an unruly audience in check but see them as a companion to what you’re doing. (And yeah, they’re also terrific performers)

And then a few months later I had dove headfirst into dance, and all but left improv behind. I occasionally played or checked back in, but I was definitely into dance and would stay in until the year I moved away. To be fair, the scene and my situation had by that point stagnated a bit, and unless you earn the favor of one of the big theaters, your opportunities to play are a bit slim even if you’re creating your own. I had taken in such great lessons, but I didn’t feel there was much of a place to apply them. In fact, I probably applied more of these ideas in my experimental and dance work with Studio Current, GENDER TENDER and others than I ever did with the Seattle improv scene.

The catalyst to come back to improv was actually my 2014 summer trip to New York City. Improv by no means was the goal, but I got to see shows at PIT, UCB and Magnet, and the enthusiasm for playing showed me something more inspired than what I had experienced in Seattle. I knew there had to be something more to improv. Shortly thereafter I was asked to move to Chicago, and with my arrival I dove right back in, armed with past experience and all the lessons of the past gestating in my subconscious. I didn’t realize how good I was at this shit until I started doing it regularly again.

As of this date I have logged 230 hours of improv in 2015. Compare that to the 277 hours of improv and sketch I logged total in Seattle between 2010 and my exit. Again, that just came down to opportunity volume: In Chicago I can practice all the time whereas in Seattle I might have had two days a week to get it in. (And I logged over 1600 hours of total performing arts practice in Seattle doing mostly lots of other stuff; improv was one part of a larger puzzle). But at this point I feel like it’s making sense on a higher level, and now I’ve got ambitions beyond just Harold teams or headlining 8pm shows.

Five years down. Many more to go.

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